You know the last time it felt like this? NFC Championship Game, 2001 season. Eagles driving in St. Louis, going in for the win, only to have the game ended on a Donovan McNabb interception. It was a bitter pill to swallow, awful pain, but it was the start of something special for the Eagles, a window never before experienced for this franchise. That's where the Eagles are now after falling 21-16 to Green Bay on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The loss hurts. Blown opportunities doomed the Eagles once again in a big spot. There were two missed field goal from David Akers. The defense allowed Green Bay to convert 8 of 13 third downs and power its way to 138 yards on 32 attempts. The offense bungled chances to score, converting just one of three trips inside the Green Bay 20-yard line.
And so it is going to take some time to digest the defeat to a very solid, very sound Packers team. The playoffs aren't about being the better team, just being the better team that day. And the Packers were the better team on a bitterly-cold day in South Philadelphia.
Why? I don't know. How can you explain Akers missing from 41 yards in the first quarter and then from 34 yards in the fourth quarter when he entered the game with a 93.3 conversion rate on field goals in his career from 40 yards and in? Akers, in fact, was 12 of 15 from 30-39 yards in his career (two misses in 2000) and 8 of 9 from 40-49 yards.
But on his first attempt on Sunday night, Akers kicked toward the north end zone and into a stiff, swirling wind that was blowing the ball from right to left in the pre-game practice. On this kick, though, the wind appeared to die down, and it did not push Akers' kick left. He missed right.
On the second field goal try, Akers kicked with the wind at his back, but it was swirling when he swung his left through the ball and he again missed right after the Eagles missed on a second-and-3 run and a third-and-1 run.
How do you explain the run defense allowing 123 yards on 23 carries to rookie James Starks, a sixth-round draft pick who had all of 101 rushing yards in his NFL career prior to Sunday night? A Green Bay running game that ranked among the worst in the league on the ground gashed the Eagles for 138 yards on 32 carries.
What is there to say about tight end Brent Celek, who stepped out of bounds in the back of the end zone on a two-point conversion penalty, nullifying a catch that would have made the score 21-18 late in the fourth quarter and that could have made the final, agonizing minute so much more palatable for quarterback Michael Vick to navigate? The Eagles had a re-do of the play from the 7-yard line, but Vick turned his ankle on the play and the attempt fizzled.
Why did the Eagles start in a hole in a big game once again, trailing 14-3 at the half? The offense managed just 125 total net yards and converted only 2 of 7 third downs in those two quarters before awakening in the second half. It was a disturbing way to end the season for the offense, and the signs of trouble were there weeks ago and not corrected.
Where is the kickoff return game on this team? It was a problem from the start of the season until the end of the year, and it was probably like that with many teams in the league. The elimination of the three-man wedge (and I know this is special teams geekspeak) clearly affected kickoff returns around the NFL.
What happened to right tackle Winston Justice, a player whom the Eagles invested in last year with a long-term contract extension? He was replaced in the second half by King Dunlap after a series of tough plays against the relentless Clay Matthews. The offensive line, to its credit, battled against some injuries but did not come close to establishing the line of scrimmage during the year, especially in short-yardage situations. The Eagles converted just 5 of 13 third downs on Sunday.
Finally, wouldn't Vick love to have that final pass to throw one more time? The Eagles had the football at the Green Bay 27-yard line with 44 seconds remaining and no timeouts left to use. The team sent three receivers deep on "all-go" routes -- DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant on the right side of the formation, and Riley Cooper on the left side. Jeremy Maclin was another option as he sat down just past the first-down marker. LeSean McCoy circled out of the backfield, but slipped as he cut.
Vick threw left, for Cooper. He wanted to get air under the ball and give the 6 feet 4 Cooper a chance to make a play.
But cornerback Tramon Williams was there and went up and intercepted the slightly-underthrown ball in the end zone.
"I took a shot at the end zone," Vick said. "I could have checked it down to the back. I got greedy and took a shot at the end zone. I didn't throw the right ball that I wanted to and it got picked out. It was a bad way to go out, but at least I went out swinging. It's hindsight now. It's something I have to learn from.
"I thought we were going to win the game. I had an upbeat feeling about myself. I felt like I was in control."
Vick was in control throughout the season and he rescued the Eagles when they needed him. He is a keeper. What happens next, of course, is a gigantic question mark. The entire offseason is uncharted waters with the Collective Bargaining Agreement up in the air. It is impossible to speculate next steps.
All I know now is the feeling of abject disappointment, and undying optimism. The Eagles have a roster with an average age of 25.8 years. They have obvious flaws -- and we will talk about them day after day in the months ahead -- and they have a lot of tough decisions to make. But there is no denying how exciting the future is for this football team.
Through the pain, there is a bright light of hope. The Eagles must attack this offseason and take the next step. They surprised a lot of people by winning the NFC East, by capturing 10 games. They didn't surprise themselves, though. This was a team that knew it was good in training camp, that knew it had so much young talent. As they left the Lincoln Financial Field locker room on Sunday night, they felt nothing but disappointment.
And that's how it should be. The Eagles couldn't beat a good Green Bay team in the playoffs because they didn't handle the details. They didn't make the little pieces of the game count. And now they are out, one and done, left to hope that the hurt heals quickly and gives way to a hungry, exciting window of opportunity ahead.